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Maintaining America’s Global Scientific Leadership

By U.S. Rep. Bill Foster

Rep. Bill Foster

Rep. Bill Foster

Since our founding fathers broke away from the crown and forged a new nation over 200 years ago, the world has always looked to the United States as a guiding light. They have looked, not just to our democratic ideals, but to our role as innovators in science and technology. But in the increasingly competitive global economy, our light is starting to dim.

The greatest long-term threat our country faces — on both the military and economic fronts — is the threat of losing our role as world leaders in innovation in science and technology. Without appropriate support for basic science research, it is very likely that the next big innovations, and the jobs they create, will occur overseas.

For the last century, the majority of major technological breakthroughs — including the Internet, GPS, passenger jet planes, and medical imaging technology — were driven by federally supported research. Our nation’s ability to innovate is a cornerstone of our status as a world economic superpower. In fact, since World War II, over half of U.S. economic growth has been driven by science and technology.

Despite the invaluable return we have seen in the past, federal investments in research and development are at a historic low, comprising merely 3.8 percent of the federal budget and 0.8 percent of GDP.

According to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, from 2010 to 2013, federal research and development was cut by 16.3 percent, the fastest decline in a three-year period since the Space Race ended. Sequestration alone will lead to an average annual cut of $11.5 billion in federal funding, bringing it to the lowest levels in over a decade.

These cuts have an immediate impact on current research, and they discourage the best and the brightest from entering careers in research and development. Those effects may not be felt yet, but the impact on our long-term competitiveness will be devastating.

Study after study has shown that federal funding of research has a high return on investment. By underfunding basic science research, the U.S. is slowly chipping away at our global competitiveness.

From 2001-2011, the National Science Board indicates that the percentage of global R&D invested by the U.S. shrank from 37 percent to under 30 percent, while Asia increased its share to 34 percent, edging out the U.S.

For 23 years, I conducted research in high-energy particle physics at Fermi National Laboratory. I know firsthand that scientific research isn’t a spigot that can be turned on and off. Research requires a steady commitment of time, talent and resources. The damage done to our nation’s research capabilities by mindless budget cuts will not be reversible.

We cannot retreat and stop investing in American innovation. We need to maintain a competitive advantage now more than ever. As Congress crafts future budgets, it is critical to remember what is at stake.

While investing in research and development is critical, the rhetoric coming from our leaders also plays an important role in maintaining America’s global scientific leadership. As leaders, it is our duty to inform the public of the truth. For those of us with scientific and medical backgrounds, this duty falls even more seriously.

We recently saw the real and dangerous consequences of false rhetoric.

By 2000, the United States had effectively eliminated endemic measles, an effort 40 years in the making. But all of that progress is quickly coming undone, not by an act of nature, but by willful ignorance.

Last year, there were 644 cases of measles in the United States — the highest number in 20 years — and already this year, there have been 159 cases in 18 states, including my home state of Illinois.

This was not because of underinvestment in research or because of lack of medical access, but because of misinformation and false rhetoric.

We are seeing the same dangerous game play out on an even larger scale with the issue of climate change. Just like those who refused to accept that the earth is round, many leaders refuse to accept the reality of man-made climate change. The impact of ignoring climate change may not be as immediate as failing to vaccinate, but the long-term impact will be much more devastating.

In addition to the direct impact this misinformation has had, anti-science rhetoric coming from our leaders erodes our global reputation. As scientists, it is important for us to combat this the only way we can: by standing up and speaking out in support of science and truth.

As other countries ramp up investments, trying to outpace us, we cannot let up. We must make robust investments in research and development and encourage thoughtful, reasoned debate so that our light can shine brightly and we can protect our role as global leaders in science and innovation.

Congressman Bill Foster is a scientist and businessman representing the 11th Congressional District of Illinois. Foster is the only physicist in Congress.

Foster currently serves on the House Committee on Financial Services and the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Foster participated in the creation of several important reforms in the financial services and housing sectors, most notably the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Foster’s business career began at age 19 when he and his younger brother co-founded Electronic Theatre Controls, Inc., a company that now manufactures over half of the theater lighting equipment in the United States.

His scientific career was as a high-energy physicist and particle accelerator designer at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Foster was a member of the team that discovered the top quark, the heaviest known form of matter. He also led the teams that designed and built several scientific facilities and detectors still in use today, including the Recycler Ring, the latest of Fermilab's giant particle accelerators.

Foster lives in Naperville with his wife Aesook Byon, who is also a physicist. His father was a civil rights lawyer who wrote much of the enforcement language behind the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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